As Jacoby Ellsbury mulls over his depleted role in New York, Aaron Hicks will be roaming center field for the Yankees.
The Yankees had been high on Hicks before trading for him just after the 2015 season because they liked Hicks' athletic ability and the pedigree that comes with the first-round draft pick. Hicks didn't get a ton of playing time in 2016, but finished strong, boosting the Yankees confidence he could contribute more in 2017.
Hicks, 28, entered camp last season with a chance to win the right field job, but eventually lost out to Aaron Judge despite a strong spring training. Hicks did enough in spring to garner a few starts per week in April and May and he eventually received a chance to start when Ellsbury went down with a concussion toward the end the end of May.
Hicks was spectacular in April and May, hitting .298 with a .425 on-base percentage and a .545 slugging percentage in 154 plate appearances. Hicks roped six doubles and eight home runs in the two-month span while driving in 24 runs. Hicks slowed down a bit in June, though it was still a solid effort -- .821 OPS with nine doubles and two homers in 88 plate appearances.
Unfortunately, Hicks suffered an injury of his own, a strained right oblique which wiped out 39 games from his season. Upon Hicks' return, he was not as successful and then suffered an injury to his left oblique, costing him another 21 games.
Despite the late-season struggles and the injuries, Hicks received all of the postseason starts in center field over Ellsbury. Hicks was very productive through the ALDS, but like the many of the Yankees, he had a rough ALCS, going just 2-for-24 with eight strikeouts. Regardless, Hicks will be the starter in center field when spring training begins this season and for the first time he has a chance to run with a full-time gig from the outset of the season.
At the moment, Ellsbury, who will make over $21 million this season, plans to come to spring training and try to strip Hicks of his job. Of course, the issue is that Ellsbury has been a complete disappointment since his first season in pinstripes. In 2017, Ellsbury compiled a 97 OPS+ and missed 29 games due to the concussion. Ellsbury had a decent stretch when Hicks missed time in September, but it was not enough to convince the Yankees that he should play over Hicks in the postseason.
Ellsbury, 34, has a bigger issue than supplanting Hicks. In essence, Ellsbury has to also be better than Brett Gardner or benefit from an injury or two. Gardner can easily slide to center field if Hicks is not performing or hurt, and one of Judge or Giancarlo Stanton could get a chance in left field. As it stands, Ellsbury is the fifth outfielder on the depth chart, so reps will be few and far between if everything is going as the Yankees hope and expect.
Speaking of expectations, what can Hicks produce across a full season? It's a loaded question; Hicks has never eclipsed 400 plate appearances in a season. The difference in 2018 is that he is the Opening Day starter, and so long as he plays similarly to his opening stretch in 2017 before the oblique injury, Ellsbury won't overtake him.
Hicks may lose an occasional day to Ellsbury in an effort to get the latter reps. There is also a chance that Hicks will have to take a back seat to Gardner so that either Judge or Stanton can occasionally play in left field. Considering these circumstances, Hicks may be hard-pressed to get to 600 plate appearances even if he stays healthy.
Assume he does reach the mark. Hicks has the ability to hit .260 with an on-base percentage around .330 and a slugging percentage in the .430 to .450 range. Hicks has 20-homer power and he could steal 20-plus bases as well. Hicks demonstrated vastly improved patience at the plate, drawing walks at an extraordinary 14.1 percent rate in 2017, so there may be hope that he can build on that and potentially come closer to the .372 OBP he posted last season. In the field, Hicks provides above-average defense with a strong arm, and at his age there is no reason to believe his defensive efforts will fade.
Since Hicks has been a Yankee, he's shown extended spurts of exceptional play, but he has also shown to fall into ruts. It is possible with daily reps and less concern about his role, Hicks' play will resemble that of the beginning of last season. If Hicks can become more consistent, it could lead to a complete breakout season many have been waiting to come to fruition.
Trying to project Ellsbury's statistics is like taking a shot in the dark. Any substantial playing time for Ellsbury would likely require two injuries in the Yankees' outfield. Granted, Ellsbury handled the playing time situation well last season when he became Hicks' backup and then as an injury replacement. Ellsbury didn't complain and was prepared to take on pinch-hitting and base-running roles, so it will be incumbent on him to do the same when the time arises.
The changing of the guard in center field is coming to a close, however the door will only be completely shut when Ellsbury is wearing a different uniform.